Through the Grapevine

Willamette Valley: Part 2

December 10, 2012

Today I continue with Part 2 of a 4 part series  (see Part 1 here) focusing on the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  This wine region’s success has been driven by a small group of well-respected, successful pioneers producing top tier vineyard specific American Pinot Noir wines.   An earthy community as well, they were all very into a sustainable eco-friendly wine growing and producing process. 

Now I should note first that this research trek was the result of a rather impulsive, last minute decision to drive cross country from D.C. to the west coast in my wife's Mini Cooper Club S in order to dispense of some “use or lose” corporate vacation time (a bizarre commercial practice, don’t you think?).  The ride in the Mini was great, and if you haven’t yet had a chance to see some of the country this way, I recommend adding it to your “bucket list”. 

My second stop in the Willamette Valley was a visit to see Doug Tunnel at Brick House Winery.  His winery is best known among consumers loyal to Certified Organic wines, which his have been since the first planting in 1990.  His vineyard at Brick House comprises 19 vineyard acres, most of which are planted in Pinot Noir, a small amount of Chardonnay and a miniscule amount of Gamay.

Doug removing wine from an oak barrel preparing for bottling at his biodynamic Brick House Winery (Photo by: Doreen Wynja) Doug removing wine from an oak barrel preparing for bottling at his biodynamic Brick House Winery

Brick House has such a small production, and I’m guessing that most of you have never yet heard of or tasted its exquisite wines.  Doug is one of the earlier producers in the growing US natural wine scene; the wines produced here are of exceptional quality, true to the estate vineyard site, and true to the owners’ personal commitment to letting the vineyard produce the wine in every respect. 

Proprietor, chief winemaker, and sometimes bottle washer at Brick House, Doug did not first set out to be a wine grower.  Interestingly, his first profession was that of a foreign correspondent for a major news network in the Middle East during the 70's (just think about all the events that man has witnessed).  Following his successful news career, he returned to his Oregon roots and is among the so called “2nd generation” of the Pinot Noir wine growing pioneers from this well established and now highly acclaimed Pinot Noir producing region of the country.  My conversations with Doug during my visit were fascinating; an added bonus to tasting some wonderful wines.

Doug and Melissa (Photo by: Doreen Wynja) Doug and Melissa

On arrival I was first taken into the kitchen/lab of his estate home and tasted some raw juice.  The juice was now getting tested frequently in the days and hours before the first fruit was to be picked.  Picking perfectly ripened fruit, from best in class vineyards, plays a huge part in the success of the wine making process.  It certainly is the only way to produce top tier, world class wines.  Great wines come from a vineyard, that’s just the way it is.

Doug was a gracious host and we chatted as he was going about the work of the day.  His story demonstrates that one can make world class wine consistently, responsibly, and successfully with a healthy environmental commitment in growing the fruit and making the wine.  Brick House’s smaller, manageable operation contributes to its impressive success, and I’d be willing to bet that Alice Feiring, famed NYC Author of Naked Wine, is a fan of Doug Tunnel and Brick House wines.  I personally found his wines to be authentic to the vineyard and to his fascinating personal story.  The case production of these wines below counts only in the hundreds so grab some of them whenever you can.

2010 Ribbon Ridge Cascadia Chardonnay
An amazing Chardonnay that reminds me a bit of something from Puligny-Montrachet in the Cote de Beaune area of Burgundy.  Only ever fermented with indigenous yeast, and left on the lees for 16 months, this pleasurable wine offers a generous note of ripened pear, crème fraiche, minerality, flint, and with impeccable balance.  Retail price $36

Like the other handful of established neighbors up on the Ribbon Ridge of the Willamette Valley, I found each of Doug's Brick House Pinot Noir's to be distinctive, rich in depth, and authentic.  Again, neither favorites nor any wine speak necessary.  Try any one alone or seek out some of each - you just really can't go wrong.

2010 Bolder Block Pinot Noir
Retail price $44

2010 "Les Dijonnais" Pinot Noir
Retail price $49

2010 "Evelyn's" Pinot Noir
Retail price $60

Order online at Brick House Wine while the small quantities produced are available.
Compare the value and quality of these American produced Pinot Noir's against many Burgundy Grand Crus wines and you will be very pleased that you did.

To your good health and happiness~

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Wines and a Stocking Stuffer for the Wine Geek

December 5, 2012

You may recall that in my last article, Willamette Valley Oregon Part 1, I made reference to your ability to access wines directly from the producer and to have them shipped directly to your front door in the District of Columbia.  I thought it useful to elaborate on this a bit as we start our annual rush into the holiday wine buying/gifting season, and to share some great finds for you to purchase. 

Working the sorting line with Lynn and team having to pitch in (Photo by: Ron Penner-Ash) Working the sorting line with Lynn and team having to pitch in

The important takeaway here is that as a wine consumer who may be interested in small production, vineyard specific artisan crafted wines, you are being squeezed out of the supply chain today because of 3-tier distribution consolidation realities.  It’s simple really, and all in the math.

According to Silicon Valley Bank in their 2010 State of the Wine Industry Report, the top 10 largest wine producers in America now control 82% of distribution for wine sales across America.  The major distributors generally do not carry the wines I write about - those best in class vineyard specific wines that the American Grand Cru Society seeks to serve.  In that same report it was shared that between 2000 and 2010, wine distribution in the U.S. had consolidated by over 50%.  That leaves literally thousands of smaller American wine producers trying to compete for the remaining 18% of space, and consumers like you and me losing access to many of America’s finest produced wines.  

I don't wish to suggest that these distributors and large conglomerates are some sort of evil empire; rather that market forces have shifted dramatically and that these changes have altered the way in which consumers can access wines from many of America's best in class smaller producers.  One of my goals is to help provide insight into the thousands of smaller producers  who are making wine produced from America’s best in class vineyards. 


Great American-Made Pinot Noir

These wines are all made with 100% fruit grown from either an Oregon or California Grand Cru nominated vineyard.  If you are accustomed to buying French Grand Cru wines from Burgundy, be prepared to enjoy very comparable wines at enormous cost savings!  (Each producer listed offers whites and other varietals as well, minimums may apply).

Penner-Ash Winery - Willamette Valley, Oregon (Lynn Penner-Ash, Proprietor & Winemaker)

2010 Estate Dussin Vineyard Retail Price $60

2010 Shea Vineyard Retail Price $60

2010 Bella Vida Vineyard Retail Price $60

Order online at  Phone 503.554.5545

Brick House Doug at Work (Photo by: Mike Davis) Brick House Doug at Work

Brickhouse Winery –Willamette Valley, Oregon and Certified Organic (Doug Tunnel, Proprietor & Winemaker)

2010 Bolder Block Pinot Noir Retail Price $44

2010 "Les Dijonnais" Pinot Noir Retail Price $49

2010 "Evelyn's" Pinot Noir Retail Price $60

Order online at

First and second generation Casteels (Photo by: Bethel Heights) First and second generation Casteels

Bethel Heights – Willamette Valley, Oregon (Ben Casteel, Winemaker)

2009 Carter Vineyard Retail Price $50

2009 Justice Vineyard Retail Price $50

2009 Flat Block Vineyard Retail Price $58

Order online at Phone 503.581.2262

Greg on a Barrel (Photo by: LaFollette Winery) Greg on a Barrel

La Follette Wines, Sonoma Mountain & Mendocino Ridge, California (Greg LaFollette, Winemaker)

2009 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Retail Price $50

2009 Van der Kamp Vineyard Retail Price $40

Order online at Phone 707.395.3902

2006 Dunah Estate Vineyard Retail Price $45

Order online at

(Photo by: )

Need a Stocking Stuffer too?

Please show your support and gift a membership to the American Grand Cru Society for the wine geek(s) on your shopping list.

Remember to tell your friends who live in D.C. and can't find the wines they want locally that they can usually order directly from the producer and have them delivered to their front door.  Just tell them that you heard it "Through the Grapevine at The Georgetown Dish!"

To your good health and happiness~

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Willamette Valley in Oregon

November 19, 2012

As founder of The American Grand Cru Society and a credentialed sommelier since 1995, I am often asked about my favourite wines and latest new discoveries.  This is always a hard question to answer since there are literally hundreds of thousands of labels (skus's to the trade) on shelves in wine stores.  Who can keep up with what is actually available?  It's no wonder that wine consumers get overwhelmed.  The key here is to find wines you really like, and then stock up on them to lasts a while until that urge to hunt down more hits you.

Lynn and Husband Ron are leading the ceremonial Champagne toast (Photo by: Ron Penner-Ash ) Lynn and Husband Ron are leading the ceremonial Champagne toast

The wines I speak and write about fit a general profile.  They are always small vineyard specific wines, because knowing where all the fruit comes from is an important component that should not be neglected.  These wines are often challenging to find - most are very small production releases – and they are all quite special that are perfect for sharing with close friends and family. Occasionally, some of these wines can be procured through local retailers.  However, many of them are only available to DC residents via shipping direct from the winery. 

Today I will share part 1 of a 4 part series from a recent research trek to Oregon, where I sought out the hottest Pinot Noir producers in the Willamette Valley (this is pronounced Will-A-mett, with the emphasis on the soft “a” in the middle of the word, just in case you’re visiting the area yourself…you can save having your pronunciation corrected by the locals by a traditional Will-A-mett, dammit!)  This region has been recognized as a bastion of success with this rather fickle grape varietal and offers some of America's finest world class Pinot Noir.

Gregoire Poirier (Photo by: Ron Penner-Ash ) Gregoire Poirier
On a recommendation from Janet Viader, marketing director for Viader wines and daughter of the famous Napa producer, and iconic wine grower Delia Viader, I called to make my first appointment at Lynn Penner-Ash Winery in the Ribbon Ridge area of the Willamette Valley.  (Referrals from inside the rather private producer community are invaluable!)

 Lynn Penner-Ash Winery, an architectural treasure of aesthetic design, landscape and functionality, is open to visitors for tasting Wednesday through Sunday, and tours are available on Saturdays and Sundays by appointment.

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars offers a diverse portfolio that includes an amazing Viogner, and various top tier, vineyard specific Pinot Noir's.

The 2011 Viogner I tasted displays the crucially important, all too often lacking acidic balance required to unleash an intense depth of minerality lying beneath the classical full floral bouquet associated with this varietal, and was followed with multiple layers of bright fruit.  This is a well balanced wine from two quality vineyards - Crater View Vineyard (90%) and Power Block Vineyard (10%).

Retail price $30 - 700 cases produced.

working the sorting line with Lynn and team having to pitch in (Photo by: Ron Penner-Ash ) working the sorting line with Lynn and team having to pitch in
Moving on to the Pinots that Lynn creates, I am struck by her consistent ability to expose a variety of choice varietal styles and characteristics unique to each of the specific vineyards from which these wines were produced.  It's no surprise that she is considered one of the hottest American Pinot Noir producers today.
I will not drone on with wine speak to describe each of these Pinots; rather I suggest that you call and place an order a mixed case for yourself and try to discover your favorite among them, if you can.  Better yet, just buckle and order a case of each while they last…you really can't go wrong.

Estate Dussin Vineyard 2010 Retail Price $60
575 cases produced

Shea Vineyard 2010 Retail Price $60
530 cases produced

Bella Vida Vineyard 2010 Retail Price $60
215 cases produced

A final note to all you Pinot Noir lovers out there:  When you compare value and quality of Oregon produced Pinot Noir vs. Burgundy, I think you’ll find that these small-production, finely crafted wine are simply to good to pass up .

Call Lynn-Penner Ash Winery  at 503.554.5545

To your good health and happiness!

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